TRAVERSE CITY — A governmental watchdog group recently gave Michigan a failing grade on financial disclosure rules for lobbyists who spend money to influence state legislators.
And one campaign finance expert said it's prime time to reform the rules.
Lansing lobbyists spent nearly $20,000 on current northern Michigan legislators for food, drink, financial transactions and travel expenses, Secretary of State records show, part of a bounty bestowed on state politicians in recent years.
But Michigan's loose reporting rules don't identify on whose behalf lobbyists advocated at the time the money was spent, nor what causes lobbyists discussed with state senators and representatives.
If lobbyists don't spend more than $57 on a legislator for food, drink, or gift, they don't have to report it at all, meaning there's no way to know about below-the-threshold activity.
Such loopholes led the nonpartisan, Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity to give Michigan an "F" grade for lobbying disclosure laws, noting the state's overall campaign finance law "has more holes than I-94 after a spring thaw."
Rich Robinson, who directs the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said the state should require lobbyists to report every dollar spent on legislators. Legislators should also have to report what lobbyists spent on them in what Robinson called "a dual-reporting system."
In addition, he contends Michigan needs to mandate that lobbyists disclose what they're trying to peddle when they wine and dine politicians.
"If you spend any money, you've got to report it," Robinson said. "In Wisconsin the way they do lobby reporting is before a lobbyist can began to lobby on any issue, they have to declare an interest in it, and they have to report everything they spend."
Pols prefer food and drink
The vast majority of money Lansing lobbyists spent on northern Michigan legislators was for food and beverage, according to lobbyist filings with the Secretary of State.
Traverse City Rep. Wayne Schmidt, R-104th District, received $3,080.59 in individual food and beverage gifts from lobbyists since Schmidt entered the Legislature in 2008, state records show.
Schmidt chairs the House of Representatives' Commerce Committee. He said meeting with lobbyists is a part of the job, and allows him to discuss issues with lobbyists and their clients.
Lansing's most powerful lobbying firm, Governmental Consultant Services, represents a myriad of large corporations, and listed $1,319.06 in food and beverage expenditures on Schmidt. Lobbyist records do not state what laws or topics they discussed with Schmidt as they wooed him.
Schmidt offered little clarity about his meetings with lobbyists.
"They represent a variety of clients," Schmidt said. "I meet with many of their clients if it's a Michigan company or national company.
"I operate the same way in Traverse City as in Lansing," Schmidt said. "I'm always willing to talk and hear what people have to say from a variety of interests "¦ from business to labor to environmental."
Nell Kuhnmuench, director of Governmental Consultant Services, did not respond to two requests for interviews.
Emmet County Rep. Frank Foster, R-107th District, is listed in Secretary of State records as receiving $4,871.92 in food and beverage expenses from lobbyists since he took office in 2010.
Foster, like many northern Michigan legislators, said meeting with lobbyists over lunch or dinner helps him stay informed about issues that face companies and clients the lobbyists represent.
He said northern Michigan's locale crimps the time legislators spend in Lansing, so there is added value in meeting with lobbyists over lunch or dinner.
"We have limited time down in Lansing," Foster said. That prompts meetings with different business groups, agriculture groups, builder associations, through lunches."
Making their case
Robinson said lobbyists buy legislators food and drink for one reason: Access.
"A chance to, in a comfortable situation or in a gifting type of situation, make their case for whatever their policy desires happen to be," Robinson said.
Lansing lobbyists reported spending $20.7 million overall through the first seven months of 2012, up by 4.5 percent compared to 2011, to date a record year for lobbyists' spending.
Lobbyist expenditures on food and drink for other state legislators in the region include:
Sen. Darwin Booher, R-35th District, received $2,461.33 in food and beverage expenses. Booher entered the Legislature in 2005.
Sen. Howard Walker, R-37th District, $1,931 in food and beverage expenses. Walker, of Traverse City, has been a state legislator for more than a decade.
Peter Pettalia, R-106th District, received $1,387.69 in food and beverage expenses. Pettalia entered the Legislature in 2010.
Rep. Greg MacMaster, R-105th District, received $194.07 in food and beverage expenses. Rep. Ray Franz, R-101st District, received $228.21 in lobbyist support, and Rep. Phil Potvin, R-102nd District, received $77.58.
Sen. John Moolenaar, R-36th District, has been in the Legislature since 2002. Since then, he's been the beneficiary of $5,716.23 from lobbyists, state records show. Of that figure, $2,183 is from computer companies in 2003. That year, Moolenaar accepted $1,070.66 in travel and lodging expenditures from Microsoft. The same year, he accepted $2,432.46 from Apple.
Pettalia said meetings with lobbyists don't influence him, and he questions the reports' accuracy. For instance, Governmental Consultant Services listed more than $800 in food and beverage expenses for Pettalia. Pettalia said the number must represent dinner meetings with GCS representatives and one of their clients, Lafarge North America.
Pettalia said a large number of people attended the dinners, and the lobbyist who filed the report must have listed all of the dinners in Pettalia's name. He said he would not have consumed more than $800 in food and beverages as cited by the lobbyist.
"I don't know what that would be unless they wrote the whole dinner off in my name," Pettalia said.
Booher said he views the amount spent on him as minimal, given the lengthy time he's spent in the Legislature.
"It's not drinks," Booher said. "It's for lunch or breakfast or dinner. There is information you need to have when you make decisions about a lot of issues that deal with complex departments and policies. They give you your version and you get the version back from people (in your district), and the more information you get, the better you are going to be. It doesn't slant your vote."
Walker said he views lobbyist meetings as a part of the job.
"They are work-related, and a lot of times — most of the time — they include other legislators or other constituents," Walker said. "We need to meet regularly with our colleagues and constituents."
Lobbyists report itemized spending for food and beverage on individual legislators only if those expenditures exceed $57 a month or $350 a year on an individual legislator.
Lobbyists do not have to report spending on individual legislators if the amount is less than those limits. That means lobbyists are spending big chunks of money on legislators while not exceeding itemized reporting thresholds, Robinson said.
For the summer of 2011, lobbyists listed $528,823 in food and beverage spending on Michigan legislators. Nearly $346,933 of that, or 66 percent, was unitemized, meaning there's no way to tell who received those benefits.